AMHERST — A turning point can come at any time. In Amherst’s three-game sweep of Avon Lake, freshman Madison Cruzado made an early play that seemed impossible at the time she made it, and turned a tight match into an easy 25-23, 25-13, 25-15 victory.
Amherst had not defeated the Shoregals in more than two years, and in the first game it looked like the Comets were on the way to another defeat at the hands of their Southwestern Conference rival.
Avon Lake jumped out to a 19-14 lead before Comets junior Carly Richards reeled off five straight service points to tie the score at 19.
The teams went back-and-forth, with the Comets taking a 23-22 lead. With Cruzado serving, Avon Lake had exactly what it wanted, a ball high in the air over the top of six-foot senior middle hitter Katie Mihalik.
Mihalik powered a spike toward the floor, a spike that would have tied the game. Cruzado had other ideas. She dived forward and somehow got her hand between the ball and the floor, popping the ball a couple of feet in the air and enabling sophomore Brianne McHugh to flip it up and over the net.
The Comets (6-2, 4-0) ended up winning the point and the first game. They then rolled over the dispirited Shoregals in the last two games.
“That was the turning point,” Amherst coach Laurie Cogan said of Cruzado’s pancake dig. “I think everybody in the gym thought that ball was going to hit the floor — except Madison. She didn’t get a lot of elevation on the ball, but Brianne McHugh came in and got it up so we could knock it over.
“When we got that over and scored on it, we never looked back after that. That was the turning point in the match. It was huge.”
Senior setter Riley Schenk had a dominant match for the Comets, contributing in every phase of the game. She had 14 points on serve, including five aces, with 25 assists and even added six kills.
“We knew we had to come out and play hard,” she said. “We knew (Avon Lake) was going to be tough because they’ve been tough against us for the last two years.
“In the first game, we were a little worried because Avon Lake came out strong and had the momentum. They’re a good team and we knew they were going to play hard in every game. When we were down in that first game I told everyone we had to pick it up. We were able to win the game and played well the rest of the night.”
Schenk had plenty of help. Cruzado had a match-high 23 digs and 11 points on serve, while senior Mallory Sliman and sophomore Ashley Makruski had 10 kills each.
Makruski, a 5-11 outside hitter, carried the Comets at times with her powerful play at the net.
Cogan and Schenk are impressed with how the sophomore has progressed.
“She has a very big future ahead of her,” Cogan said. “In the next couple of years, Ashley is going to be one of the premier hitters in this area, if not in the state. She’s got good size, a long wingspan and plays with a lot of passion.”
“She’s only a sophomore, only 15 years old, and everyone should watch out for her,” Schenk added. “She has two more years to play in this program and has all the potential in the world. She’s the real deal.”
Shoregals coach Dan Berkheimer was pleased with his team’s early play, but did not like its response to adversity.
“In Game One, we had a great effort,” he said after the Shoregals fell to 4-3, 2-2. “We passed the ball well, we serve-received well, except for one rotation, and it could have gone either way. They got the win and it was a great game. I was disappointed that we responded with frustration because that frustration built. We need to control that.
“We have to win that mental battle and tonight we didn’t. Congratulations to Amherst because it was a nice win for them, but I was proud of our team. Nobody quit. I thought they fought really hard.”
Berkheimer did see a few bright spots from his Shoregals. Junior Katie Couglin had 10 kills and four aces, while Mihalik added nine kills and four aces.
He took a few positives away from an otherwise rough night.
“This was the first time we were challenged, and we needed to be challenged so we could see how we responded,” Berkheimer said. “I thought Katie Couglin had a great night, this was the best I’ve seen her play. I also thought Katie Mihalik had some big swings for us.
“Our setter also did a nice job getting the ball to our hitters. It wasn’t a total loss tonight, it was just unfortunate because we allowed them to get in our heads. They have a great fan base here and it’s a tough atmosphere.”